Early results in Iraq election favor populist cleric Al-Sadr

A poster shows Shiite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr (L) and cleric Mohammed Baqer Al-Sadr in Sadr City, east of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. (AFP)
Updated 15 May 2018
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Early results in Iraq election favor populist cleric Al-Sadr

BAGHDAD: A populist coalition organized by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr emerged as the front-runner Monday with more than half the vote counted in Iraq’s national elections.
Partial returns from Saturday’s balloting — the first since Iraq declared victory over Daesh — were announced by the country’s electoral commission and put Al-Sadr’s political alliance in the lead in six provinces, including Baghdad.
Remembered for leading an insurgency against US forces and inciting sectarian bloodshed against the Sunni population, Al-Sadr has in recent years sought to recast himself as a populist, railing against corruption and failing services and striking a political alliance with Iraq’s secularists and Communist Party.
None of the competing blocs appears on track to win a majority in parliament and name a prime minister. As the results stand, Al-Sadr’s bloc will be able to take a leading role in the political horse-trading to find a compromise candidate. Because Al-Sadr did not run for a seat, he cannot become prime minister, but his deputies in parliament are expected to follow his directives.
Al-Sadr commands the devotion of millions of Iraqis who have sent their sons and husbands to fight for his militia from the early days of the US occupation.
“We are joyous,” said Jaafar Abdeljaleed, 28, who added that his father was killed fighting US-led forces in 2003. “Sayyid Muqtada loves the nation, and so do I.”
The election came as Iraq is struggling to bring down soaring unemployment and reintegrate its disenfranchised Sunni minority. More than 2 million people are displaced by war, most of them Sunnis.
Also at issue is how to integrate the country’s vast and predominantly Shiite militia structure into the security forces. The militias, known collectively as the Hashd Shaabi, are key conduit of influence for Iran into Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has sent many of them to fight.
An electoral alliance of Hashd-linked candidates, headed by militia commander Hadi Al-Amiri, is currently in second place in the election returns.
Al-Amiri maintains close ties to Iran. He also has said he is open to US training of Iraq’s military and regularly meets with US diplomats in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr commands his own militia that fought against Daesh militants, but he has disavowed any Iranian and US influence in Iraq, and he has called for the full withdrawal of US troops. His former Mahdi Army fought American forces for years. In 2014, he reorganized his fighters under the name the Peace Brigades — Saraya Salam.
Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi came in first in Iraq’s second largest province, Nineveh, but he has performed poorly in the rest of the country, coming in third and fourth place in most provinces and fifth in Baghdad.
Al-Abadi’s signature achievement was expelling Daesh militants from Mosul, a Nineveh city, in 2017. The liberation came at a tremendous cost to the city, parts of which has been laid waste by the US and Iran-backed campaign, but the province appears to have rewarded Al-Abadi for his leadership.
In a national address Monday, Al-Abadi vowed to keep the country safe under his command until a new government is formed.
“I call on Iraqis to respect the results of the elections,” he said.
Al-Sadr said in Tweet that he was open to forming a coalition with Al-Abadi to form a new government for Iraq.
The electoral commission released results from 10 of 19 provinces Sunday night, including tallies from Baghdad and Basra provinces. It released the results of six more provinces late Monday.
Iraq is still waiting to hear the results from foreign and security forces balloting, which could add close to 1 million votes to the national tally. The country is also waiting to hear results from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city disputed by Baghdad and Iraq’s northern, autonomous Kurdish administration.
Al-Abadi directed Iraqi forces to retake the city late last year after the Kurdish regional administration organized a referendum on independence that controversially included Kirkuk; federal forces moved in with little bloodshed as Kurdish forces withdrew.
The electoral commission said it would release the remainder of the results on Tuesday.
Members of the election commission read out vote tallies for each candidate list in 10 provinces on national TV. By the end of the announcement, Al-Sadr’s list had the highest popular vote, followed by Al-Amiri’s.
Seats in parliament will be allocated proportionally to coalitions once all votes are counted.
Celebrations erupted in Baghdad’s Sadr City, an impoverished quarter that is home to about 3 million people and is named after the cleric’s father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, who was killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999.
Only 44 percent of voters turned out — the lowest in the four elections held since Saddam’s ouster in 2003. Despite that, Al-Sadr’s sophisticated political machine mobilized his loyal base of followers to go to the polls.
Any political party or alliance must gain a majority of the 329 seats in parliament to be able to choose a prime minister and form a government. Dozens of alliances ran for office, and months of negotiations are expected before any one alliance can pull together the 165 required seats.
Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and parliament speaker. Since the first elections following Saddam’s ouster, the Shiite majority has held the position of prime minister, while the Kurds have held the presidency and the Sunnis have held the post of parliament speaker.
The constitution sets a quota for female representation, stating that no less than one-fourth of parliament members must be women. Nearly 2,600 women ran for office this year.


US weighing options on American Daesh sympathizer in Syria

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard on top of a building on February 17, 2019, in the frontline Syrian village of Baghuz. (AFP)
Updated 51 min ago
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US weighing options on American Daesh sympathizer in Syria

  • Neither option would likely pass muster in the cases of US citizens, who enjoy strong legal protections under the Constitution

WASHINGTON: The United States said Tuesday it wanted to ensure foreign terrorists remain off the battlefield as it weighed options on an American detained in Syria who says she wants to return home.
The United States has urged European powers to take back hundreds of their citizens who fought with the Daesh group in Syria, but acknowledged the situation was complex in the rare case of an American terrorist.
Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old from Alabama who became a prominent online agitator for the extremists, said in an interview published Sunday with The Guardian that she had been brainwashed online and “deeply regrets” joining the movement.
While declining to discuss Muthana’s case specifically, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said that the status of US citizens detained in Syria “is by definition extremely complicated.”
“We’re looking into these cases to better understand the details,” he told reporters.
Palladino said that the United States generally did not see a different solution between what to do with US fighters and with foreigners, saying the fighters pose “a global threat.”
“Repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin, ensuring that they are prosecuted and detained — that’s the best solution, preventing them from returning to the battlefield,” he said.
The situation of foreign terrorists detained by US-allied Kurdish forces has taken a new urgency as President Donald Trump plans to withdraw US troops from Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces say they may have to refocus on fighting Turkey, which has vowed to crush Kurdish fighters it links to separatists at home.
Trump has contemplated reopening the US military base at Guantanamo Bay to take in new foreign inmates, while Britain on Tuesday revoked the citizenship of a female terrorsist who wanted to return home with her newborn baby.
Neither option would likely pass muster in the cases of US citizens, who enjoy strong legal protections under the Constitution.
Muthana, who was married three times to terrorists and has a son with one of her husbands, fled her family in 2014 to join the Daesh group in Syria, where she took to Twitter to urge attacks on fellow Americans.
In the interview with The Guardian, Muthana said that she was “really young and ignorant” when she joined Daesh and has since renounced radicalism.
“I believe that America gives second chances. I want to return and I’ll never come back to the Middle East,” she told the newspaper.
Hassan Shilby, a lawyer for Muthana, told ABC television’s “Good Morning America” that the young woman had been “brainwashed and manipulated” and is “absolutely disgusted” by the person she became.